Friday, December 19, 2008

Notes From an Underground (a recording)

In Ukraine, all of the smaller, corner stores work much like markets did in the United States fifty or one-hundred years ago. You'll go in and see that all of the goods are on shelves or in cold cases only employees can reach or access. Consequently, if you want some cheese, you'll have to go up to the dairy counter and speak with a blue-aproned продавщица (prodavschitsa/saleswoman) who will call out, Я слушаю! (ya slushayu!/I'm listening!) and take your order. If you want some meat, or some dry goods, you'll have to repeat the process, seeing two more Blue Aprons.

There is certainly a benefit to this system: a drastic reduction in theft. But the problem is, if you don't speak Russian, or if you speak a little Russian but are too shy to test it in public, you will likely starve, especially if you haven't yet discovered one of the western-style supermarkets, of which there were several in Kharkov.

Anyway, all of this is a long introduction to the fact that I wrote an essay about my experiences trying to scrape together a few good meals in Ukraine during my first couple of weeks in-country back in the fall of 2005. A while back I pointed you to the journal that published it, NOÖ Journal, which subsequently nominated the essay for inclusion in the Best of the Web 2009 anthology.

Now I'm writing to say you can find an audio recording of the essay below. Fourteen minutes long, it should prepare any traveler for a trip to the Former Soviet Union. Tell me what you think. And Приятного аппетита!


Ya Lublu Ukraina said...

Things are changing at a fast pace. More and more supermarkets are being built. The corner shop on Pushkinskaya is no longer a shared place. There is a mini Market near Pushinska Metro tucked behind the the shops on the corner. Even Barbashova has changed beyond what you would recall. It has given up the out door tents and all the shops are now housed in prefab arcades. Soon the Centraly Rynok will circum to modernisation. It is still one of the best of the old style markets around. Hope fully it will stay for a few more years but surely if there is money to be made it will be privatised. Sadly the smaller street vendor markets can not compete on packaged goods. The smaller folk markets are great for buying that spare part which you would not normally get in a modern hard ware shop.

Oh and they pulled down the old Sumskaya Rynok a couple of years ago. They still have not constructed the new building which makes you wonder why the pulled the old one down so soon. I guess they needed to secure the land (Just in case democracy took hold)

Вегетарианец said...

Good recording. Can you post the text. I would like to get my students to read it.

I could never drink fresh milk from Ukraine. I guess I came to like the pasteurised dairy back home and could not drink the stuff that tasted and smelled like a cow. Instead I used sludky moloko (condensed milk), chose your brands carefully as the quality control is not the best. Look for the one with the red rabbit. You know its good if a red rabbit is stamped on the package.

I was lucking in that when ever I was offer salo or some unknown dish all I had to say was that I was a vegetarian (Вегетарианец).

Try and visit your Ukrainian friends in the 40 days leading up to Easter. Say your on a religious fast. They eat no animal products during the fast of lent.

Learn to cook Vareniki c smetana with a sprinkle of paper. Oh and you will soon learn to make a very tasty tomato cucumber and sour cream salad. Sprinkle a bit of cheese and add some sunflower seeds to the mix. Cheese takes some exploration trial and error before you can find the band that is OK (They do not have cheese with a red rabbit). Do not expect to find good parmesan. It just does not exist. (The stuff in the supermarket is not Parmesan, well it is not the tasty stuff that come from the italian grocer back home.

If you have Ukrainian friends around buy an avocado and watch them approach it like you would an uncooked chicken. Same goes for a mango. MANGO? Is that not a brand of women's clothing? Of course there is always oranges. Every one was wearing orange for a while. That was before Andriy Yushchenko, the President's son, patented the color and made a few 100 million dollars on the back of the revolution.

PS check out Natalia Antonova's blog Her writing on Ukraine will impress.


Stephan said...

Вегетарианец, I've had some experience being a vegetarian in hostile lands -- my father's Texan; try taking tofu to a barbecue -- but I also am prone to change, so I decided this time I was gonna go back to eating everything but pork. It's held since then -- and I have discovered those salads and vareniki (though the vareniki is one thing I don't each much of here, in LA. The packaged stuff was good in Ukraine -- potato vareniki, great. But here, the dough is all wrong -- we buy it from a Russian or Armenian bakery but it often falls off while you're cooking it or scooping it up from the plate).

As for the mango and avocado, you must read my mind. The former my wife takes back to Russia with her every year, the latter is what I can never find over there. The closest decent Mexican food I found was in St. Petersburg.

You'll find the text to the story through the link to Noo journal above. You can also click on the "dublit" at the bottom of the audio recording and it'll take you to the site that hosts the audio recording. There, you can download the text if you hit on the three buttons by the recording -- the middle one. It's a few words different than the final text, though. So if you need a word for word translation go through the Noo link and copy and paste from there.

Thanks for reading, too.

Stephan said...

Ya Lublu -- Yes, sad. I was there for when Barabashova was building that arcade; I'll always remember the tents and shipping containers with the changing rooms created by pulling a sheet on a string in front of you.

The way the economy's faltering, I wonder what else might take hold in a couple of years. Democracy? Perhaps. But what else?

Anonymous said...

I loved Ukraine and my best place was the old central market. A great place to people watch and get a real feel for the Country you are visiting.

My Ukrainian friends all suggest that I visit the new hyper malls that are spring up like mushrooms in the outer suburbs. They are just like small suburban shopping malls you will find in any Western country. Boring and sterile.

The people's markets are much more fun. I try to explain to a group of students that the Central market is my favourite place in town. They look at me rather funny not understanding why I do not prefer to go to the new modern shopping malls. I try to explain that the Market is fall of life and fresh produce. You just need to take care when buying meat. Go early in the day and not at all in hot weather. If its raining and snowing be prepared for the delay and wear good solid bush walking shoes.

The peoples markets will not last. Soon Ukraine will no longer be the adventure paradise non-English speaking holiday you have always wanted. More and more Ukraine is undergoing its own Cultural revolution. Soon it will be no different then any other European state (Except for the type script)

More and more Ukrainians speak English and as soon as you open your mouth they will want to practice their English.

The girl in the coffee shop you go to, the place where you like to best speak Russian/Ukrainian in order to get some practice decides to talk to you in English. You reply in your low level Russian which she finds hard to understand so she speaks again to you using her low level English oblivious that you are trying to learn the local language. (At least in France they will embrace your efforts to speak French).

Marvel at the fact that you are one of a few native English speakers in a city of 2 million people. Enjoy the experience because soon it will not exist. Like the Markets it will all fade away into gray and beige cultural tones.